During the decades I lived in Saudi Arabia, I eventually stopped noticing the dense black veils that hid the faces of local Muslim women. It was just the way it was, like the endless sandy sabkha (salt flats) in every direction.
Even in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Saudi women generally accepted their veils as a religious obligation, because Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, apparently required his wives to wear them to avoid the carnal stares of men. Veiling thus had a religious imprimatur.
But I learned that the faith’s holy book, the Quran (dictated by Muhammad), in fact, mandates no such practice. The cultural artifact of veiling is just something Saudi men started demanding of women some vague time back in the day, and it has only acquired the aura of religious necessity over time. One secular explanation was that during the pre-oil era Saudi nomads routinely raided rival tribes and carried off women and treasure; with women veiled, the theory goes, it was much harder to distinguish grapes from raisins.
My point here is that religion and culture are constantly tripping over each other—and often grievously misrepresented—because their histories are often older than current memory. It’s a chicken and egg thing.
Which brings me to male circumcision and, coincidentally, FGM (female genital mutilation). For the uninformed, FGM is a practice whereby various parts of female genitalia are excised, injured or variously refashioned. Although how the practice began is shrouded in time, one reason—as the common removal of the orgasmic clitoris strongly suggests—is to muffle female sexual arousal and hopefully (for men) to reduce the chance of illicit sexual affairs with random men other than husbands. Among the countries where FGM is reportedly practiced, is Saudi Arabia, but apparently only in the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam prevalent in the country’s mountainous northwest.
Male circumcision (removal of the natural foreskin covering the penis), on the other hand, has acquired little of the global stigma that FGM has. Indeed. A quote from Halimah Al-Warzazi, a U.N. special rapporteur to the U.N. sharply underscores this reality. Ironically, Al-Warzazi’s job in part was to campaign against “traditional practices prejudicial to … children” under the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Nonetheless, she once said:
“Circumcision of male children does not concern the United Nations.”
Male circumcision has an ancient pedigree in Egypt and among Semitic peoples who lived in Africa and environs, and although not universal and often controversial it gradually became de rigueur for most Jewish, Christian and Muslim men over the centuries. Even South Pacific islanders and Australian aborigines were found to be ardent circumcisers when Europeans first encountered them.
Although FGM is broadly derided today, an estimated 100-140 million women and girls worldwide are current victims of FGM as a traditional womanhood rite, according to the World Health Organization. A 20-year study of FGM sponsored by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) found the practice prevalent in 29 nations. UNICEF discovered that nearly all young girls—as many as 98 percent—were cut in eight countries, all with Muslim majorities: Somalia (98 percent), Guinea (96), Djibouti (93), Egypt (91), Eritrea and Mali (89), and Sierra Leone and Sudan (88).
So, we have arrived at this point in history where male circumcision has long been an accepted cultural practice—within and without the cultures that perform it; an estimated one in three men worldwide are believed circumcised. Conversely, FGM is commonly demonized by victims and outsiders alike, but extensive international campaigns against it have proliferated in recent years. Both practices have a complex history with both cultural and religious elements (e.g., in Genesis, God orders Abraham to circumcise himself, male household members and slaves).
Oddly, male circumcision is suddenly in the news again—in of all places, Iceland.
The Icelandic parliament is currently considering a bill with broad multi-party and public support that would impose a 6-year prison term on anyone conducting a circumcision for non-medical reasons. If it survives the legislative process, the bill could be enacted into law within several months.
Critics are alarmed by the idea, notably Iceland’s pro-circumcision Muslims, Catholics and Jews, who fear that life for them would be discriminatory and untenable if the ban were passed. They worry the law is a fig leaf for antisemitism and Islamophobia. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the Catholic Church in the European Union, termed the bill a “dangerous attack” on religious freedom. Opponents of the bill also cite treasured cultural traditions circumcision represents for many people.
Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir of the centre-right Progressive party proposed the bill after realizing that FGM has been banned in Iceland since 2005. “If we have laws banning circumcision for girls, then we should do so for boys,” she reasonably argued to the British newspaper The Guardian, adding:
“We are talking about children’s rights, not about freedom of belief. Everyone has the right to believe in what they want, but the rights of children come above the right to belief.”
The Council of Europe in 2013 passed a resolution urging 47 member nations to regulate “ritual circumcision” after Germany did so the previous year. In 2016, a British family-court judge ruled that children shouldn’t be circumcised until they are mature enough to decide themselves. So, European public opinion seems to be shifting.
Of course, many societies have long justified these transgressive practices according to vague cultural or religious mandates. But, in essence, they are simply mutilating children without their consent.